Health As a Driver of Innovation Not Just a Recipient 
An electronic blood sugar monitor makes it easier for people with diabetes to manage their disease.

As WHO unveils S.A.R.A.H. (Smart AI Resource Assistant for Health), its new digital health promoter prototype powered by generative artificial intelligence (AI), and available in eight languages 24 hours a day, WHO’s Regional Director for Europe writes about harnessing innovation in health to help meet critical public health challenges, both now and in the future.  

Innovation has always been a driving force behind advancements in health, revolutionizing the way we prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases. And as we navigate through a rapidly evolving health landscape, embracing health innovation has become more crucial than ever. 

From cutting-edge technologies like mRNA vaccines to AI-driven diagnostics, the potential of innovation to transform healthcare is limitless. But for too long health has often been viewed as a passive beneficiary of innovation rather than a driver of it. 

It’s time to change this mentality and harness the power of innovation. The challenges we face, from global pandemics to rising chronic diseases, from a rapidly ageing population to the effects of climate change, demand creative solutions that prioritize the well-being of populations worldwide. 

Shifting mindsets to move health innovation needle

Our sector – health – can and should be at the cutting edge of new and innovative solutions, driven by technology including AI, which is going to fundamentally change every aspect of human life over the coming century. 

In fact, the IMF predicts that 40% of jobs will be affected by AI in some shape or form over the coming years, including in health and care. Further, AI products and services are expected to contribute $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined.

However, while technological advancements have made significant strides in healthcare, social innovations and policies also play a crucial role in addressing the complex needs of diverse communities. Innovation in public health goes beyond technological breakthroughs; it involves harnessing creativity, collaboration, and sustainability, to promote equitable access to quality healthcare.

To foster an environment conducive to innovation in public health, leaders and decision-makers must focus on responding to the needs of communities while closing the equity gap. 

We must shift the focus from solely economic returns to the broader public health impact of innovative solutions. By aligning policies with the goal of improving health outcomes for all, we can better address inequalities in healthcare access and deliver sustainable solutions that benefit society as a whole. 

Another strategic shift requires patients themselves to be co-creators and designers of innovation because patients are experts in their own right. They know how to navigate life living with cancer or diabetes or a physical/mental disability. Involving them in the full pathway of disease management will make solutions more relevant and sustainable, and encourage innovation at scale.  

Ecosystem approach 

As public health professionals, we are not always good at articulating how innovation meets health and societal needs. That’s why we need an ecosystem approach to innovation. By fostering collaborations between healthcare providers, technology companies, research institutions, and policymakers, a holistic ecosystem can be created to drive innovation in health.

In Ireland, for example, the Health Ministry joined forces with the Department for Business, Enterprise, and Innovation to set up the Health Innovation Hub, an incubator for public health solutions. Health workers in the Health Innovation Hub spend half their time delivering care and the other half working with start-ups and health tech companies: a clear example of an ecosystem approach.   

Digital solutions to health, such as telemedicine, are already a reality in some countries.

As we embrace innovation to tackle pressing global challenges, sustainability must remain at the core of our efforts. Innovations should not only address current needs but also contribute to long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability. 

This requires a shift towards sustainable practices, circular economy models, and responsible innovation that minimizes negative impacts on both people and planet. 

Too often people tell me that striving for health equity is at odds with our market-driven societies; that equity somehow stifles innovation. I would strongly dispute that – there is no contradiction. But unfortunately, modern economics tends to focus only on improving efficiency – for example, getting more cancer screenings for the dollar, or squeezing the last ounce of productivity out of the health system.

 Equity – leaving no one behind – is not seen as the responsibility of the commercial sector but that of the state or the non-profit sector. This mindset also needs to change. 

A Wellbeing Economy values equity and not only revenue or “productivity”. It strives to make the world a safe and just place for humanity – and this is the true challenge for innovators.

The future is already here 

Innovation for health brings together experts from diverse fields such as medicine, engineering, data science, and behavioural psychology. But as health is about where people live, love, work, and play, it’s also about transportation, urban planning, and agriculture.

This interdisciplinary approach not only catalyses breakthrough discoveries but also nurtures a culture of cross-pollination, where ideas flourish, and boundaries are transcended – precisely the kind of culture that innovation needs to thrive. 

However, the pursuit of innovation for health is not without its hurdles. From regulatory barriers to financial constraints, from ethical dilemmas to data privacy concerns, the path to innovation is fraught with challenges that require careful navigation. Nevertheless, these challenges should not deter us but rather galvanize our resolve to push the boundaries of what is possible. 

By fostering a culture of innovation, nurturing creative minds, and empowering diverse stakeholders to collaborate, we can address the most pressing challenges of our time.

Embracing emerging technologies, exploring new frontiers in science and medicine, and prioritizing social innovations will pave the way for a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable future and help countries in the hard-pressed challenge of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

We are well and truly in an era of ever accelerating innovation in health, bringing with it boundless possibilities for improving our collective health and wellbeing, generating jobs, and growing our economies. But health leaders are not yet fully equipped to navigate this new world, so full of exciting potential, with confidence. 

The health sector must be ready and equipped to embrace innovation across all dimensions, strengthening health and wellbeing. Or run the risk of being left behind, squandering the opportunities of today and jeopardizing the very future of health itself.  The choice is clear.

Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge is WHO Regional Director for Europe

Innovation ecosystem for public health 

Digital health – WHO/Europe

AI ethics and governance guidance

Image Credits: Uka Borrgeaard/ WHO, Juliana Tan/ WHO, WHO.

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